The X-Men are notorious for having a long, convoluted, and oftentimes downright depressing history. In the face of giant robots, ancient Egyptian mutant deities, and sentient islands, who’s better suited for saving the world than the premiere mutant superhero team? When he founded the X-Men, Professor Charles Xavier opened the doorway to something special. Odds are great neither he, nor anyone else, predicted his little team of rag-tag mutants would grow into a worldwide powerhouse ensemble unit.
Charles opened the Xavier Institute as something of a safe-haven, but it grew into a headquarters. As more mutants started rolling in and more threats made their presence known, Xavier’s school aided his team of feral mutants, telepaths, weather controllers, and teleporters when they needed to suit up and head out to combat heinous threats to human and mutantkind alike. Many mutants aside from Xavier have led the X-Men , or offshoots of the famous superhero team. So to assign the term “bad” or “worst” to any particular X-Men leader would be unfair, as they did their best to keep their species safe. Still, some are better suited for the job than others. Here at CBR we’re counting down 20 heroes and villains who have led the X-Men.
The long-time nemesis to the X-Men and philosophical rival of Charles Xavier, Magneto, the Master of Magnetism, originally wanted nothing more than to blow up the world. In the early days, his character was never closely examined, but later it came to light he justified his actions when comparing them side-by-side with the atrocities he witnessed during the Holocaust -- he swore it would never happen again to his people.
And so, despite all the horrible things he once did, Magneto would later repent for his crimes and move on to becoming the acting headmaster of the Xavier Institute. The more time Magneto spent with the X-Men, the more he felt he was one of them. That was until comic book shenanigans ensued and he would go evil again, only to turn good in a never-ending cycle as Magneto constantly walks the line between right and wrong.
19 EMMA FROST
Before Emma Frost would lead the X-Men, she was the White Queen of the Hellfire Club, and like Magneto, a complete and utter scoundrel. A dangerous and vicious villain to the X-Men, her psychic abilities caused plenty of grief for the team. She eventually had a change of heart when her Hellions were killed by a group of Sentinels and she joined the side of angels, serving as an instructor for the Generation X team.
Later, she would become a full-fledged X-Man and would have a psychic affair with Cyclops, behind Jean Grey’s back. Once Jean died, again, the two became lovers. Following Xavier stepping down as leader of the X-Men, Emma Frost and Cyclops took over, until in recent events she manipulated a war between the X-Men and the Inhumans, going back to her evil roots.
Sean Cassidy, Banshee, is a mutant that while there isn’t much of him these days, he used to be a fairly big contender in the X-universe. A former Interpol inspector from Ireland, Banshee would assist the X-Men on multiple occasions, even during big storylines like the Dark Phoenix Saga.
When Emma Frost turned her old Massachusetts School into part of Charles Xavier’s school, Banshee was instrumental in its formation. He helped teach and lead the young Generation X team. Yet when the team left him and Emma, Sean went to create a militant team called the X-Corps; their goal was to police mutant affairs, which unfortunately caused him to take on his former X-Men teammates. It’s probably not a strong sign of leadership when you end up in conflict with the team you just left.
Karma originally started as part of the New Mutants, the younger mutant team who weren’t quite ready to head into the field. Charles Xavier oversaw their training, making sure they were ready for the fights to come. The New Mutants was also made up of Cannonball, the techno-organic Warlock, Wolfsbane, and Dani Moonstar, yet it was Karma who was the first member of the team.
As such, she quickly grew into a leadership role under Xavier’s guidance, a role the 19 year-old Vietnamese girl would more fully embrace during a Sentinel attack, which seems to be the trial by fire every mutant must endure. Xi-an Coy Manh would seemingly die, leaving Cannonball and Moonstar to lead the team together, but like every X-Man ever, she would come back later.
Forge is something of an oddball and nearly a fringe character in the world of X-Men. Coming from a dystopian future, just like the X-Men Bishop, Cable, and half a dozen others, Forge helped found the XSE, Xavier’s Security Enforcers. See, the future that Forge comes from was actually the same one as Bishop, where Sentinels have enslaved the world and mutants are branded with an M on their faces. In trying to fight back against their mechanical overlords, Forge, or as he was better known in the future, Genesis, led the revolution.
When he traveled back to the present-day, Forge was seen as kind of quirky. His mutant powers of having an innate understanding of technology and mechanical energy, made him sympathetic to machines, nearly seeing them as living organisms who ought to be treated as such.
Jubilee is one of those characters that people either love or hate. Don’t get us wrong, she’s a strong and determined character in her own right, but people like to make fun of her, thinking the only thing she can do is generate little fireworks. After all, she did lose to Robin that one time without even landing a single blow.
Regardless, for those who love her, she’s been Wolverine’s personal little buddy for the longest time, when he wasn’t training Kitty Pryde, and developed from being an annoying teenager to a full-fledged woman, capable of defending herself and teaching others. Currently, when Jubilee isn’t taking care of her baby boy, Shogo, she’s a teacher and leader for the new Generation X team. All things considered, it turns out she has a lot of wisdom to impart.
14 CAPTAIN AMERICA
Captain America, the Sentinel of Liberty, and the centerpiece to the Avengers and much of the Marvel Universe is a hero unlike any other. You also probably wouldn’t think of him when musing over those who’ve led the X-Men, but here we are. And no, we’re not going to be talking about a What If? scenario, but rather the time Steve Rogers led the X-Men, along with his fellow Avengers, during Marvel’s first Secret Wars.
While X-Men, Wolverine especially, were initially reluctant to follow the Star-Spangled Avenger into battle, they would come to see him as the honorable and awe-inspiring hero we knew he was. Captain America shone when he led the X-Men and the rest of his fellow superheroes against all-powerful foes like Galactus and Doctor Doom, barking out orders and stratagems, but doing it with an air of dignity.
Strong, bold, and sporting a Southern accent, Rogue also started her tenure in the X-Men universe as a bad guy. First taking on the Avengers and then moving on the X-Men, her energy absorption powers makes her an incredibly formidable ally or enemy. Unlike either Magneto or Emma Frost, Rogue has remained on the straight and narrow.
Even despite her tragic life and her inability to touch anyone, Rogue successfully rose through the ranks of the X-Men, becoming a veteran of sorts amongst many younger teammates. Later in her career as an X-Men, Rogue, at the behest of Cyclops, would lead what was essentially a rapid response team. Taking in controversial mutants like Mystique and Sabertooth, Rogue proved she was as intelligent and cunning as she was powerful.
The ninja clad X-Men Psylocke has endured a long, complicated, and arduous life. That’s saying something considering the company she runs with. From body-swapping and dual personalities to mind-control, alternate dimensions and a whole plethora of issues, Psylocke constantly strove to be the best and most loyal X-Man she could be.
Armed with telekinesis, telepathy, psychic knives that could put enemies in a coma, and remarkable proficiency in martial arts, Betsy Braddock was a prime candidate to lead the X-Men, and more notably, Cyclops’s black ops X-Men team X-Force. Ruthless in her leadership, trust didn’t run high on her team, as people weren’t sure whether she was reading their mind. Still, Psylocke was more than willing to make the tough calls when everyone else shirked at the idea.
When it comes to superhero team-ups, it’s not terribly uncommon to see Spider-Man and the X-Men come together to fight the forces of evil. While the amazing web-slinger might not have led the A-Team that is made up of Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm, and the rest, he has led, and taught, groups of younger teenage X-Men.
In coming to terms with great power and great responsibility, there is no better teacher than Spider-Man himself, the hero who effectively coined the phrase. Brought in by Storm or whoever was the X-Men’s leader at the time, Spidey served as a teacher, helping out the young mutants against the supervillain Psycho-Man and then taught for a longer period of time during the six-issue series Spider-Man And The X-Men. Despite getting on the nerves of the older X-Men, and occasionally his students, the younger X-Men would come to greatly admire the wall-crawler.
10 KITTY PRYDE (ULTIMATE UNIVERSE)
The Ultimate Universe is a darker, more grisly place then the mainstream Marvel Universe. When someone dies there, they stay dead. Towards the end of Ultimatum, many of the X-Men including Cyclops, Wolverine, and Angel were killed. With no one left to pick up the pieces, the team is terribly fractured.
Kitty Pryde won’t let mutants fall into despair and goes about recruiting a new team. For the longest while, fans considered Kitty, and nearly every iteration of her, to be the X-Men’s moral center; they also realized she had tremendous potential as a leader. Ultimate Kitty takes up the proverbial baton and begins making the world a safer place for mutants everywhere. With her new team in tow, she takes down William Stryker’s army of Nimrod Sentinels, forges a protected reservation for mutants, and even stares down S.H.I.E.LD., refusing to put up with their bureaucratic shenanigans.
9 RACHEL SUMMERS
Rachel Summers is the daughter of Scott Summers and Jean Grey from an alternate timeline and without question the strongest of member of the Summers family. Armed with telekinesis and telepathy, for years Rachel controlled the power of the Phoenix with such ability, as her mother could never do. She used the psychic force as a means to enact positive change while she was a member of the X-Men and the mutant team Excalibur.
After she and Nightcrawler mistakenly thought the X-Men had died, the two friends formed Excalibur, taking on bizarre threat after bizarre threat. Despite Nightcrawler serving as the team’s primary leader, Rachel would occasionally be put into a leadership position and it was a position she found herself most suited for. Presently, she’s running around with Nightcrawler and friends on the X-Men Gold team led by Kitty Pryde.
The demonic-looking, deeply religious, swashbuckling Nightcrawler, Kurt Wagner, has been on the X-Men team for decades and he’s remained a fan-favorite character amongst readers. Consistently a force for good, Nightcrawler’s faith stays with him through thick and thin, his devotion to the Almighty never wavering. He’s served as counsel to nearly all the X-Men, along with Wolverine, Spider-Man, Deadpool, and pretty much every mutant who questioned why their lives were so miserable.
While a member of the uncanny X-Men, Nightcrawler’s leadership skills emerged when he formed, and helped to lead, the mutant team Excalibur. Joining him was Kitty Pryde, Rachel Summers, Psylocke, and the English superhero Captain Britain. Their oftentimes bizarre adventures sent them through time and alternate realities, but the team could always count on Nightcrawler to help show them the way.
The son of Scott Summers and Madelyne Pryor, the clone of Jean Grey, Cable/Nathan Summers was the brainchild of Mister Sinister who wanted to use Cable as a weapon against the mutant Apocalypse. Growing up apart from his family, Cable forged his own path, until eventually returning to the present day, years older than either his father or his mother.
Sometime after Cable returned from time traveling, Magneto took over Xavier’s school after Charles retired. The New Mutants immediately distrusted the Master of Magnetism and turned to a new leader: Cable. Sporting an attitude and worldview completely opposite from Xavier’s, Cable enforced a more militant code, turning the teenaged mutants into his personal soldiers. And so was born the first X-Force team, which he led with deadly proficiency, taking a proactive stance against threats to mutants.
6 KITTY PRYDE
Ever since Kitty Pryde first joined the X-Men as a teenager, she showed tremendous promise. Not only is her power-set both powerful and extremely useful, i.e. phasing matter (or quantum tunneling), but she’s always had a knack for acting as the team’s heart and soul. Her youthful optimism let her see the world from a slightly different lens then her older and somewhat more cynical teammates.
For years, fans of Kitty Pryde knew she was destined for greatness, so it only made sense when she stepped up to lead the X-Men. While she’s lead the mutant superhero team once every once in a while, nowadays in X-Men Gold, she’s the official team leader. A master strategist and combatant in her own right, the team seems to be flourishing under her leadership. Yet just being team leader isn’t enough for her, as she’s also the headmistress of the new X-Men school.
5 JEAN GREY
With a massive fan-base, Jean Grey has been a part of the X-Men since day one. Fighting the good fight, except for those times she tried to kill her teammates and destroy the world, Jean’s telepathy and telekinesis are nearly unmatched. Dependable, compassionate, and downright powerful, it makes sense she would lead the X-Men when Cyclops or Professor X could not. In fact, she has, and to great effect.
Even though Jean is dead (again), her younger self is in the present, along with the rest of the original X-Men. Taking the reigns of the situation, Jean is the team leader of the X-Men Blue unit, proving instrumental in keeping her friends alive. And despite Magneto trying to fill the roll of Professor X, Jean has a healthy distrust of the older mutant, choosing caution and leading the team as she sees fit.
The weather goddess and X-Man known as Storm is not only extremely popular, but she’s also one of the most dignified mutants around. Physically, few can stand up to her awesome power; she can hit someone with a tornado or a lightning bolt with the flick of her finger. Yet even greater than her mutant ability is her emotional support to others and her strong sense of loyalty and kindness.
Storm’s led the X-Men on multiple occasions; one of her greatest moment was when she battled Cyclops for the leadership of the X-Men. She won, but equally impressive was that she was completely powerless at the time. Since then, she’s led her fellow mutants time and again during series like X-Treme X-Men and even took on the role of headmistress at the Jean Grey School of Higher Learning.
The best there is at what he does, Wolverine’s fellow superheroes didn’t associate that title with teaching kids. Already sporting a penchant for going into uncontrollable berserker rages, spouting nonsense about his past while stabbing people, Logan’s short temper took a backseat when he was forced to embrace a teaching role. Already holding a soft spot in his heart for at-risk youths like Jubilee and Kitty Pryde, Wolverine was horrified when he learned Cyclops was sending child mutant soldiers into combat.
Logan split the team, taking as many kids with him as he could, starting his own school. He called it the "Jean Grey School of Higher Learning" and acted as the school’s headmaster -- it was awkward for everyone involved, himself included. After a Phoenix-empowered Cyclops killed Xavier, it only cemented Wolverine’s drive to keep Xavier’s dream alive and well; there were still youngsters who needed protection and an education.
Sure, Scott Summers sent children to assassinate people, got possessed by the Phoenix force and killed Charles Xavier, and then went even crazier and tried to start a war between man and mutant, but hey, at least his heart was in the right place… sort of. Long before he was America’s Most Wanted, the average comic book reader referred to Cyclops as the “boring” X-Man. However, calling Cyclops boring wouldn’t be fair.
In fact, aside from Professor Xavier, he’s lead the team longer than any other X-Man. A military and strategic genius, Cyclops is the guy with plans within plans. In events like House of M when leaders like Captain America aren’t available, the superhero community turns to Cyclops to lead them. Insanely driven, powerful, and brilliant, Cyclops’s decisions, however unpopular they are, have always been for the greater good. He is the field leader the X-Men need.
1 PROFESSOR X
Professor Charles Xavier was the first. The telepathic mutant had a vision of harmony between mutants and the rest of humanity. To that end, he created Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters, wanting to help young, troubled mutants find means of controlling their powers so they could integrate with the rest of society.
Without Xavier, the X-Men as we know them wouldn’t exist. Rather than a skilled and highly trained team, dedicated to stopping any and all threats from and against mutants, mutantkind would be leaderless, unable to find someone to champion them. Despite Xavier’s flaws, and he had a few, like wiping his the minds of his team whenever he deemed it necessary, he gets the spot of number one if only because he started it all.
Disagree with our ranking of X-leaders? Let us know in the comments section!